Who made it?: Mathieu Kassovitz (Writer/Director), Christophe Rossignon (Producer), Canal+, Polygram Entertainment.
Who’s in it?: Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmoui, Hubert Koundè.
Tag-line: “Three Young Friends…One Last Chance.”
IMDb rating: 8.1/10.
Riots, gang warfare and police brutality combine to fuel the explosive La Haine, Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s searing social drama. Released in 1995, it is hard to believe that this French landmark is over a decade old; an indictment of inner-city poverty that still feels fresh sixteen years later. Shot in unforgiving black-and-white, La Haine is a challenging, thought-provoking picture bolstered by an astonishing visual panache.
With a title that translates as “Hate”, La Haine is bursting at the seams with anger. The director doesn’t waste any time in establishing the mood, using stock footage of the Parisian riots to effectively set a bleak tone. Youths battle with the police. Sirens sound, glass shatters and blood flows. And then, the first of many indelible images – a snap-shot of the world from space, as a petrol bomb plummets toward it; destroying the Earth in a blaze of fire. It’s a fitting statement of intent.
Kassovitz was only 29 when he made the film. It stands as one of the most impressive directing debuts in contemporary cinema, possessing a mastery of technique and a kaleidoscopic view of modern-day France that truly unsettles. His aim is simple: the dichotomy that exists between the underprivileged citizens of Paris’ banlieue districts and the police force, who have no qualms about fighting violence with violence.
La Haine doesn’t follow a conventional narrative pattern, and there isn’t a story to tell as such. Instead, Kassovitz introduces us to a trio of disillusioned men who walk the decrepit estates with an aimless detachment. They have nothing to look forward to in life. Their time is spent anticipating the next outburst of violence, which is never far away. During a riot on the outskirts of Paris, police beat an Arab teenager into a coma, igniting a hatred inside Vinz (Vincent Cassel), a Jew who promises to kill a cop if his friend dies. It’s up to his companions, Arab jokester Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and withdrawn African boxer Hubert (Hubert Koundé), to delay the inevitable.
There is no attempt to soften the material. Kassovitz is deeply concerned about the class struggles in and around the capital, using the real locations to frame these events; the crew even lived there during the filming. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life affair (complete with a ticking clock that gives each scene a foreboding edge). Tension builds, slowly simmering to a boil; the hopelessness of their situation never promises a happy ending. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for these thugs. The estates are bleak and totalitarian, with armed police prowling every metre. They may be free, but it feels so much like prison. The estate acts as a character, reflecting the trio’s sense of turmoil. They are crumbling under the pressure, just like the concrete jungle around them.
In an attempt to escape the harsh reality of the ghetto, the characters venture into the city, providing a notable shift in tone. Kassovitz even signals the change via a brilliant dolly zoom shot. Like animals, the trio have left their natural habitat. They feel out-of-place here, lost amidst the designer shops and tourist attractions. They are alienated everywhere they go, including a trendy art gallery, where the cultures clash in spectacular fashion. And once more, the rift between them and the Force is firmly established. In one disturbing sequence, Hubert and Saïd are tortured in a police station, belittled by the officers who claim superiority. They aren’t there to be questioned, merely for their amusement.
The cast commit to the material, even using their real names for extra effect. Koundé is perhaps the most sympathetic of the three; his internal conflict expressed painfully on his sorrowful mug. Taghmoui provides brief stretches of comic relief to lighten the mood, yet never at the expense of the tightly wound atmosphere. But it’s Cassel who walks away with the film. He invests Vinz with a palpable sense of bile, and is the very definition of hate. A constant ball of energy, much of the film rides on his shoulders, whether imitating Travis Bickle in the bathroom mirror, or verbally abusing anyone who crosses his path.
Carefully characterised and played, the roles also add to the social commentary on a racial front. On the estate, such divisions clearly cease to be. They have made their own laws and, compared to the higher classes, racism is rarely an issue.
As you’d expect, the film generated controversy on its release. The initial showings at Cannes were heated, with the authorities refusing to provide security for the stars and director, essentially boycotting the film. While it’s difficult to side with Kassovitz 100% – many have rightly called the film biased – the factual basis for La Haine cannot be argued. The director was inspired to make it when a friend of his died in police custody, and the film screams with authenticity. He may view this world in black-and-white, but he sees humanity’s true colours.
Tough moralising aside, La Haine isn’t all doom and gloom. The look of the picture is stunning; an intoxicating rush of pure style that recalls the work of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. Photographed by Pierre Aim, the film was shot in colour and transferred to a monochromatic state in post-production, giving the images an added punch. No matter how low he has fallen with Gothika and the abysmal Babylon A.D., La Haine proves that Kassovitz is a gifted visual technician. The camera moves are carefully staged and remarkably fluid, retaining a quasi-documentary feel throughout. The visual know-how stretches to the editing, which steals from the French New Wave in its use of jump cuts and emphasised sound. La Haine really does pop, merely adding an extra layer of class to the proceedings. Here, Kassovitz has themes and a story to back-up the technical prowess, making the picture an important piece of celluloid that remains must-see viewing.
It will be hard-going for some. It’s a series of down endings, followed by a conclusion just as bleak. Kassovitz and his crew had the guts to show the uglier aspects of society and their efforts paid off superbly. A modern classic that really deserves the tag, La Haine should be watched and dissected by everyone, if only to confirm the obvious truth: We’re all just ticking time bombs waiting to explode.
A rare moment of tranquility in the ghetto, as a resident DJ (Cut Killer) treats the locals to a beguiling mix of “Fuck Tha Police” and Edith Piaf, as the camera rises into a birds-eye-view of the area. Bold and lyrical, it’s also a fitting visual metaphor of the trio’s desire to leave their roots behind.
Hubert’s voice-over informs us about the pain of living life on the edge:
“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”
- La Haine ranked #32 in Empire Magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema.”
- Kassovitz is also an actor, having appeared in The City of Lost Children (1995), The Fifth Element (1997), Amelie (2001) and Munich (2005).
- In some English-language versions, such as the 2007 Criterion Collection DVD, the name Astérix was changed to Snoopy in the subtitles, as the film traveled further than the Astérix books did.
- Jodie Foster was a vocal supporter of the film, even helping it gain distribution in America. She recorded an introduction for the US DVD release.